The poor are different from you and me…

Ugh, Charles Murray again? This week US bloggers and news commentators are rehashing Ye Olde Culture of Poverty argument. The basic idea is this:

1] Cursory observation reveals that poor people live differently than non-poor people.

2] These differences appear to have increased during the same decades poverty has increased.

3] THEREFORE poverty results from the different ways poor people live, that is, “culture.” (You know, correlation proves causation!)

4] Conclusion: If only poor people lived more like “us”! If they stopped using drugs, got jobs, got married, had fewer kids “out of wedlock”! (Note the implied audience for these musings is almost always generically middle-class, white, traditionalist.)

In the linked op-ed, Kristof notes that he has some objections to Murray’s argument, but thinks the new Murray book is raising some good points:

But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.

But is he, really? Highlighting the social dimensions, in Murray’s case, isn’t a matter of pointing out the social impacts of poverty in the US today. It’s a normative argument, blaming poverty on individual choices and behavioral patterns, and has the effect of reinforcing a very traditionalist set of values. Here’s Kristof:

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

AH, there we go! We can solve the problem of crime by marrying troubled young men off to women who can then take responsibility for them as wife-cum-parent-cum-parole officer. A thoughtful critic might wonder why Kristof wants to push marriage instead of prison reform and ending the War on Drugs. He tosses a sop to the standard liberal solutions to close his essay, but only after he’s reinforced the notion that there’s something different, something pathological, about the way poor people live.

I could note in response that drug use is widespread among all economic strata–but some end up in rehab while others go to prison. That unemployment has much more to do with the health and restructuring of the economy than with marriage status. That cohabitation and non-marital childbearing have gone up among highly educated people as well. (Weirdly, I hardly ever see op-eds about how we should blame cohabitation and relaxed attitudes toward pre-marital sex for the increase in women earning doctorates, even though the correlation exists!) Does it really make any sense to attribute poverty to cultural shifts that have happened across much of US society, not just among the poor? What useful perspective do we actually gain by “highlighting the social dimensions” of poverty?

I could go further, emphasizing that nearly all of us use some chemical compounds to alter our mood, health, and consciousness–from caffeine to meth, pot to Xanax–but that some of us have access to safer or more socially-approved drugs, some have greater susceptibility to addiction, and so on. I could ask what results when we begin viewing marriage as a legitimate sphere for government management, what the effects might be if we make a higher rate of marriage an explicit goal of government policy. What would it mean for young women’s own hopes and dreams for us to hold them responsible for “civilizing” young men, and what does it say about us, that we believe young men need to be “civilized”?

My own conclusion is simply that articles and books like these are looking for the wrong kinds of solutions in the wrong kinds of places. To adapt the apocryphal Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange: The poor are different from you and me. They have less money.

P.S. When will the professional classes learn that hard drug use leads to… the Hamptons!?

Four years ago, I was like any other young professional I knew: I worked hard at my job, then went out with friends on the weekends for dinner and cocktails. At 32, I’d tried drugs only once or twice, when someone at a party passed them around and I was feeling crazy. Then I met a woman I’ll call Jane. She had a cushy job and a ton of “society” friends, and went to all the best parties. The first night we hung out, Jane brought out some coke, and since everyone was doing it, I did too. […] soon, the two of us were inseparable. We even shared a beach house that summer in the Hamptons. (

Not to make light of this woman’s experience, but rather to note the difference class can make. [Edit: I include this story as a counterpoint to the ‘drugs ruin lives’ narrative often used in media about the poor. I can’t say much about its veracity, given the source.]


One thought on “The poor are different from you and me…

  1. Pingback: The Stakes for Anthropology in 2012 | Anthropology Report

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